Penn Virtua Expert Debunks Common Myths About Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

Breast-cancer patients often hear myths and horror stories about radiation therapy, which make them fearful of this vital treatment. Some women even avoid treatment as a result. But a new study shows that patients’ actual experience with radiation therapy largely exceeds their expectations. 

For most women, radiation treatment is much easier than they anticipated, according to research presented recently at the American Society for Radiation Oncology’s annual meeting.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about radiation therapy,” says Catherine Kim, MD, a Penn Medicine Virtua radiation oncologist based at Virtua Voorhees Hospital. “I have patients who tell me that radiation therapy was much easier than they initially thought.

“Many women are afraid of RT (radiation therapy) because they don’t know what to expect,” she adds. “They hear or read scary things on the internet, which are often false or extremely rare.”

The important thing to remember, says Dr. Kim, is that one person’s negative experience does not mean it will happen to you. Also, RT has improved tremendously in recent years. 

“Today’s RT treats cancer more effectively and has fewer side effects,” she notes. 

“Seek accurate information; talk to your radiation oncologist,” Dr. Kim advises. “Knowledge is power!”

Here are some of the most common myths about radiation therapy for breast cancer, debunked by Dr. Kim: 

Myth 1: Radiation treatments are painful.
The delivery of radiation therapy (RT) cannot be felt during the actual treatment. It is painless like getting an X-ray. What you may feel after a couple of weeks are the potential side effects such as skin soreness and dryness only in the treatment area, such as the breast in breast cancer treatment. 
                                 
Myth 2: Radiation therapy causes terrible side effects. I know someone who got very sick with nausea, vomiting, and hair loss.
Unlike chemotherapy, radiation to the breast does not cause head hair loss. It may cause some armpit hair loss if this area is in the treatment field. It also does not cause nausea or vomiting, because radiation is not delivered in an area where it can potentially cause such side effects, as with pancreatic or stomach cancer. RT generally causes side effects only in the treated area.

Myth 3: Radiation therapy to the breast causes horrible burns. I saw the pictures and read stories on the internet.
Most skin reactions from breast radiotherapy include reddening, darkening, itchiness, or dry peeling of the skin. Occasionally, there is a sunburn-type reaction. Topical creams and pain medications can be prescribed. The important thing to remember is that skin reactions are temporary and can heal quickly.  Also, the frequency and severity of such skin reactions have significantly improved due to modern advances in radiation technique.

Myth 4: Radiation therapy will cause me to be radioactive.
The majority of RT will not leave any radioactive substance in the body. Breast cancer patients receiving RT will not be radioactive during or after treatment. It is safe to be around loved ones, pregnant women, and children. No radiation precautions need to be taken.

Myth 5: Radiation therapy causes more cancer to develop.
There is a slight increased risk of developing a second cancer in the treated area from RT. However, the risk of a second cancer from radiation is about 1 in 1,000. What’s important to remember is that the risk of cancer recurrence in the absence of RT in the curative setting for breast cancer significantly outweighs the risk of a radiation-induced cancer.

Myth 6: I think I am getting too much radiation. 
The amount of radiation that is recommended is based on data and studies that have proven to be effective in treating breast cancer. This is considered the standard of care. Also, there are mechanisms in place to ensure an accurate dose is delivered and to the proper patient and treatment region. These are quality control measures that are inherent in the field of radiation oncology.  

Myth 7: Radiation from mammogram can cause breast cancer.
The radiation you get from a mammogram is low. The benefit of screening mammogram is much higher.  Data have shown that the risk of dying from breast cancer has improved with screening mammogram, which is why mammogram is considered the gold standard for early breast cancer detection.

In addition, providers like Penn Medicine Virtua offer extensive support and guidance to breast cancer patients, to nurture them through this difficult time. 

“Virtua cultivates a warm and caring environment for our radiation patients,” Dr. Kim explains. “We not only provide personalized, state-of-the-art cancer treatment, but we offer much-needed supports – including clinical trials, nurse navigators, social work, and nutrition services.  

“Our breast patients get to know our entire staff,” she adds. “They feel protected and part of a family here at Virtua.”

Penn Medicine|Virtua Cancer Programs are available in Voorhees, Mount Holly, and Washington Township. For more information on radiation oncology and other cancer services at Virtua, please call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 (1-888-847-8823).